As the year comes to a close, Starnet is just a few weeks away from saying “see you later” to a pillar of the partnership. Executive vice president Fred Williamson will retire at the end of the month after 13 years with the organization and 50 years in the flooring industry.
“The years have flown by as I have thoroughly enjoyed the interaction with the Starnet membership and our vendor partner/service provider network,” Williamson said. “Plus, I have had the pleasure of working with the great people that comprise the Starnet staff.”
While the partnership hopes Williamson will remain involved at some level through retirement, everyone agrees that he deserves the relaxation it will bring.
“Fifty years have flown by in the industry—75 years of life—it’s time to enjoy the rest of it with a little less stress,” Williamson said at the group’s fall membership meeting in San Antonio. He joked that while he certainly will not miss working on Saturdays and Sundays, he doesn’t plan to disappear entirely because he enjoys Starnet and its membership so much.
“I don’t think we will ever find Fred to be a stranger,” said Jeanne Matson, president and CEO of Starnet.
“A true gentleman”, “respect”, “unbelievable work ethic”, “smooth-as-silk professionalism”, and “integrity” are just some of the words Matson and Chuck Bode, executive vice president of Columbia, Md.-based CB Floors, and chairman of the Starnet board of directors, used to describe Williamson.
“A tireless worker, Fred has really committed himself to building the partnership between our members and our preferred vendors,” Matson said. “And somehow, Fred’s been able to do that with equal energy for all parties, equal honesty for all parties and a true commitment to making this organization better.”
Commitment is something that was instilled in Williamson by his father at an early age. At just eight years old, Williamson joined his family working in the general store they owned on the Jersey Shore. It was there that his father taught him that if you commit to doing a job, you have to do it right or you do it again—even if you are only sorting bottles for deposits.
That level of commitment to quality, customer service and each other was applied throughout every aspect of the Williamsons’ business, and it allowed the company to run smoothly and focus on innovative ways to be competitive in the market. Williamson’s father was an entrepreneur who built a grocery shopping and delivery service in the 1950s, much like the Shipt and Instacart grocery services that we know today.
“My father let people charge the groceries,” Williamson said. “He let people call in ahead of time, and we’d put the orders together and we’d put them out. We even delivered groceries. He was ahead of his time and he survived and did very well.”
After finishing high school, Williamson’s father encouraged him to leave the nest and enroll in college— something no one in his family had ever done. As a first-generation college student, Williamson quieted his fears of failing and letting his family down, jumping into the college experience feet first, leading organizations, playing sports, and creating lasting relationships.
“What helped me a lot was it was just like working in the little old store,” he said. “You depended on the people next to you.”
During his sophomore year of college, Williamson enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, and upon graduation, he continued his career in the Marines, which took him to Vietnam. Williamson saw the importance of committing to working, thinking and moving as a team alongside the men he served with—which in some cases was a matter of life or death.
“Marine Corps was a commitment and also a great opportunity to know who you are and who the people are around you are,” Williamson said. “Teamwork was absolutely critical.”
After leaving the Marines, Williamson entered the flooring industry through the carpet division with J.P. Stevens. “I went from Fred the company commander with 120 guys, to Fred the sample guy.”
Like his father, Williamson went above and beyond in every aspect of his role to better serve customers. Whether that meant strategically alphabetizing carpet samples to make them easier for him to find and showcase or taking chances even if the result might be failure, reinventing himself and the way things were done to improve business proved to be beneficial. “I started as Fred the sample boy and I left as Fred, VP of commercial sales,” he said.
From J.P. Stevens, Williamson’s career in the soft surface division took him to Karastan, where he built a sales and advisory team that assisted him with developing products and programs. He then entered the commercial flooring contractor industry, joining a childhood friend that owned Contractors Distributors Corp., and helping to expand the company from a single location in New York to 12 branches throughout the U.S.
Through ups and downs and twists and turns in the commercial flooring contractor industry, Williamson was eventually led to Starnet in 2005, coming on board at a time when 30-plus flooring contractors, “The Environmentalists”, formerly franchisees of DuPont Flooring Systems, joined the partnership. In his role, Williamson was asked to spend the balance of 2005 facilitating the transition of the group into Starnet members. In 2006, Starnet’s board of directors asked Williamson to stay with the partnership.
“Fred has been a mentor to the members and vendors,” Matson said. “He’s certainly been a great mentor to the members of the staff. When I came here 12 years ago, I didn’t know the difference between carpet tile and ceramic tile, and he’s been a tremendous mentor to me, so for that I’ll be eternally grateful.”
Though Williamson can never be replaced, he is leaving Starnet in good hands. He has worked closely this year with Mark Bischoff, Starnet’s vice president-vendor relations, to ensure a strong continuity of leadership for both the members and Preferred Vendors.
“Fred walks on water—he’s got so many great relationships,” said Dan Ulfig of Plymouth, Mich.-based Master Craft Floors, and secretary of the Starnet board of directors. “We’ll never duplicate or replace Fred. In Mark Bischoff we’ve got a guy who’s very, very forward thinking, knows a lot about our industry, is very cerebral and ‘up top’, and he can bring that information down to a level that the rest of us can understand and implement. It works well for the co-op in moving forward that we’ve got some forward thinking.”
In retirement, Williamson looks forward to spending more time with family and the charities he’s involved with. And to kick things off, Starnet is sending Williamson, along with his wife, into retirement in style with a golf weekend at the Grove Park Inn in Ashville, N.C.